Sērā-fuku to kikanjū, 1981
Based upon the novel of the same name by prolific author Jiro Akagawa, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun tells the story of Hoshi Izumi – Koizumi to her friends – (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a young schoolgirl whose father has recently passed away. Soon after the death of Hoshi Takashi she receives a letter from him, stating that he’d like his mistress Mayumi (Yuki Kazamatsuri) to stay and befriend her. However, that’s not the end of her troubles. It just so happens that her father was the boss of the Medaka gang and she just so happens to be the 4th Gen successor. But the gang isn’t exactly hot right now as there are only four members: Sakuma (Tsunehiko Watase), Masa (Masaaki Daimon), Aki (Toshiya Sakai) and Hiko (Shinpei Hayashiya). Also they’re in the midst of a turf war with the forty-strong Matsunoki gang, who are also affiliated with the Hamaguchi gang. With Koizumi thrown in the deep end it’s up to Sakuma and company to teach her a little Yakuza etiquette, but there’s no time to waste as battles of honour grow fiercer by the day and the arrival of Mayumi sparks a hunt for missing heroine, with a detective named Kuroki (Akira Emoto) hot on the trail.
Shinji Soumai had only made thirteen films before cancer claimed him in 2001 and his second feature, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, is one of his most celebrated, not only for its satirical approach toward typical gangster films of the time and changes in society, but also for placing a then-sixteen year old Hiroko Yakushimaru in an unusual central role, which on the basis of a single line uttered earned a massive response across Japan. She was the discovery of producer Haruki Kadokawa, who had placed her in a number of films throughout the eighties including Soumai’s debut feature The Terrible Couple, along with Story of a Detective (also based on an Akagawa novel) W’s Tragedy and Legend of the Eight Samurai. Her popularity soared throughout the decade until she slowed down during the nineties before hitting back hard with a series of popular J dramas and movies. And it’s easy to see what her appeal was back then; what it was that managed to win her so many idol awards. She was the quintessential model for which to reflect upon: sassy, playful, innocent, stubborn – all the things which contrasted against the world around her and it was a role that she effortlessly seemed to sink herself into. Neither could she be deemed classically beautiful in regular cinema terms; her pretty, next-door presense proved to be something of an antithesis and here such qualities ultimately manage to aid the ordinary status of her character, which Soumai eagerly seeks to capture.
Soumai, a former Nikkatsu A.D., approaches his material quite thoughtfully; Sailor Suit and Machine Gun is one of several films of his that notably features extended one-take shots. These almost become a study on nature as the director quite literally lingers over his material, not caring so much about forwarding the plot but capturing a single moment in time – whether it be glorious or not – and savouring it like a fruit pastel. His camera waivers, he employs unsteady hand-held tricks and even pans across tightly closed rooms when ordinarily he shouldn’t have to. While it never badly stalls it has a tendency to jump cut to from one important scene to the next: it briefly bonds characters with lengthy takes and then cruelly disbands them without hesitation, which is most disappointing if by that stage you’ve grown to like them (it should be noted that this review comes from the 112-minute theatrical version, a reported 131-minute Director’s cut has yet to surface). But that could also be Soumai’s genius: taking away Koizumi’s safety net to leave a sudden impact, as if to reiterate that this stuff happens all the time and we just have to deal with it. Certainly if he needed to prove that point then the characters of Koizumi and Sakuma are perfect grounds to do so with. Soumai infuses his film with an equal sharing of teen sentiments and grown up sensibilities; this isn’t solely Koizumi’s adventure in which she must learn to grow in an adult world, but a trial for its predominant male protagonists as well, who find that maybe the life they lead isn’t so desirable after all. There’s a sense that Soumai wishes to convey how important Koizumi is to her group and vice-versa and it does indeed work very well. There’s a charming chemistry shared between Yakushimaru and her co-stars who are each brought to life empathetically and retain their own unique personalities, despite being obvious pastiches of any number of characters from any number of classic Yakuza film offerings, but especially the father figure of Sakuma is well drawn and excellently carried by Yakuza movie veteran Tsunehiko Watase.
That in itself might prove to disappoint some looking for more in the way of heavy action and at times Soumai’s indulgence gets the better of him because we still feel that we should be seeing more than what we get. It should be noted that although the film’s title suggests more in the way of exploitation and action the truth of the matter is that this is more a war of words with precise characterization; Soumai draws out the plight of each gang with lengthy bouts of dialogue and foreboding shots which signpost later events. The title, then, would appear to refer to Koizumi’s ultimate awakening; the moment when she feels truly powerful, as if nothing at that moment could ever stop her from unleashing hell.
The strategic build up to the film’s final moments is well worth the time spent on. Koizumi hits back against those who oppose her in a hail of bullets, letting out an orgasmic sigh which is ripe for dissection, whether it be pointing toward arriving at womanhood, or signalling feminist undertones, any of which make decent sense when taking into consideration the amount of times she’s been scoffed at for being in charge of something belonging to a world that she would ordinarily never be allowed to take part in. Throughout the feature Soumai utilises some deft humour, not only in mimicking some rather fun Yakuza clichés in order to try and lighten the tone from time to time, but also in taking obvious pot-shots toward a stringent patriarchal system.
Yet the film doesn’t totally rely on being a pastiche, nor does it feels like it’s trying too hard to be one. Sailor Suit and Machine Gun draws a neat line between comedy and drama; it’s a lot of fun and can be disparaging in equal measure, but the concept was quite unlike anything else doing the rounds at the time.